Ohio State women’s hockey head coach Nadine Muzerall spent her childhood Saturday mornings in Ontario, Canada waking her brother Darren up at 5 a.m., putting on hockey gear and riding on the back of her mother’s bike in order to make it to practice by 6 a.m.
“It was cold out and dark,” Muzerall said. “That’s how committed I was to hockey. I just loved it and wanted to be around it.”
She has been around the sport ever since, but Muzerall is no longer riding in the back seat.
The winner of six national championships as both a player and coach for Minnesota, Muzerall has turned around the Ohio State women’s hockey program that was marred by controversy and scandal, leading the Buckeyes to their first ever back-to-back 20-win seasons and a Frozen Four appearance with only three seasons at the helm.
Muzerall harnessed her relationship with the sport not only on early Saturday mornings, but most other days as well. Whether it was on the street, inside on the floor or on homemade backyard ice rinks, Muzerall couldn’t get enough hockey.
“I’m from Canada, so it’s part of our culture like football is in Ohio,” Muzerall said.
Ten years of playing against boys and countless hours spent with her brother and father shooting pucks at her garage door is what Muzerall said honed the skills that allowed her to dominate once she went up against girls.
As a forward for Minnesota, Muzerall made a habit of lighting up the scoreboard, on her way to a school record of 139 career goals: a high mark that stands to this day.
Muzerall was an All-American selection in 1998 and 2000, leading the Golden Gophers to back-to-back national titles in 2000 and 2001. The 2000 team became the first ever to deliver a national championship in Minnesota women’s sports.
Winning hockey games would not stop there for Muzerall, who continued her career professionally in Switzerland, winning a Swiss championship before her eventual return to Minnesota as an assistant coach.
There, Muzerall helped Minnesota capture four titles in five seasons, winning it all in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Muzerall said she has a deeper appreciation for winning as a coach.
“When you’re 20, you don’t realize when you win the national championship what a big accomplishment you did,” Muzerall said. “You know you won the national championship and it’s a big deal, don’t get me wrong, but you’re 20, and your focus is on a lot of other things. When you become a coach, and that’s your job, that’s your passion and that’s all you do. When we lose I swear it hurts us more because we take it home a lot. The kids might be on to dinner, whereas I can’t sleep that night.”
Losing was not a feeling Muzerall got used to at Minnesota, as her teams went a combined 182-14-8 with her as a coach. However, she would soon take on the challenge of inheriting a program devoid of the luster and tradition that she helped create at Minnesota.
Following the 2014-15 season, Ohio State then-head coach Nate Handrahan resigned from the program after an investigation by the university that found sexual harassment accusations and unprofessional conduct.
Handrahan was replaced by Jenny Potter for a season that saw the Buckeyes go 10-25-1, before her contract was terminated by the university in August 2016 following NCAA recruiting violations.
Muzerall was hired to fill the head coaching vacancy just a month later.
“I didn’t have a high perception — or a high respect, I guess — for women’s hockey at OSU,” Muzerall said. “They were never in the Final Faceoff. They weren’t hosting the first round. They were in the bottom end of our league, so they were never really a threat. It’s not that they didn’t compete or try hard, but they just couldn’t measure up.”
Most nights of Muzerall’s first year went until 3 a.m. in her office as she tried to get the program up to speed and surround herself with the right people. She met with each player biweekly in order to establish a sense of trust and respect that they never had with previous coaches.
On to their third coach in three seasons, Muzerall said she could tell through the meetings that her players and the program were “broken.”
Due to the scandals, Muzerall said the parents of prospective recruits became concerned about the direction of the program. This included the parents of Emma Maltais, the All-WCHA forward who has led the Buckeyes in points the past two seasons. Muzerall said she had to re-recruit Maltais and get her parents back on board.
Eventually, her extra efforts began to pay off.
“They started opening up,” she said. “They started to be like, ‘Wow, Nadine’s really invested and cares about us. She might ask for a lot, she might be demanding, but that’s also what makes her a good coach.’”
For those who didn’t buy into her disciplined approach, Muzerall said “they either left or were asked to be removed.”
With a year under her belt, Muzerall led a 2017-18 campaign that set a Buckeye record for wins in a season, going 24-11-4.
Ohio State qualified for its first ever NCAA Tournament and Frozen Four — accomplishments that garnered Muzerall the program’s first WCHA Coach of the Year award.
Muzerall and the Buckeyes followed it up with a 20-13-2 record a season ago, giving the Buckeyes their first ever back-to-back 20-win seasons, and only their third in program history.
The Buckeyes face the challenge of sharing a conference with Muzerall’s alma mater Minnesota and 2019 National Champion Wisconsin, habitually the top two teams in the nation. Of Ohio State’s 25 total wins in program history against these two opponents, seven have come in the past two seasons under Muzerall’s tutelage.
Despite her early success, Muzerall is not yet satiated, as she said her goal, as well as the team’s, is to reach the Frozen Four once again.
Though she may have more Saturday mornings to spend at the ice rink, Muzerall said the stability she has helped build for the program may limit her long nights.
“Everybody’s all in,” she said. “It makes my job more about coaching hockey now, and a little less about the fine details to build it up. You’re always fine-tuning that, but it’s not that I’m at the office at 3 a.m. all the time. But it was worth it.”